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DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE:
Living Out Loud 

I feel a little sorry for Ayelet Waldman, the newest columnist at Salon.com.  I wonder if she knew what she was getting herself into when she traded her blog for a biweekly gig at the online magazine.  Salon's readers haven't exactly greeted her with open arms; after each of her columns, Salon's been inundated with hate mail accusing Waldman of every sin from writing trivial and banal prose to exploiting her children for her own narcissistic glory.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.  Waldman writes with the kind of provocative and blunt honesty that seems to either engage or repel readers.  Other writers who use that same confessional, soul-baring style have been similarly decried: Anne Lamott's articles and columns in Salon regularly generate pages of self-righteous letters questioning her parenting; in a scathing Amazon.com review of Marion Winik's First Comes Love, the reviewer asks, "Did she ever stop for a moment and think of the effect on [her sons] of reading about her incredibly dysfunctional life?" And one friend of mine was so disgusted by Vicki and Dennis Covington's co-written Cleaving (a memoir of the ups and downs in their marriage) that she threw it across the room, declaring, "Vicki Covington is a slut!"

Whether or not the writer intends to expose herself, the act of writing is inevitably revealing.  Even in fiction, readers often strain to see what they can infer about a writer from the characters he's created.  Personal essays and memoirs trade on the idea that the writer is giving the reader a little window into her life; the more confessional sort of writing opens the window and invites the reader to sit down at the kitchen table and dish.  "Have another cup of coffee," the writer says.  "Have I told you about my abortion?"

This metaphorical coffee klatch eschews journalistic distance for up-close and personal truth- telling, focused on family life and relationships.  It's the original kind of gossip -- not tabloid speculation about Nick and Jessica's marriage, but the words that get whispered from one woman to the next, over the phone, over the door to the bathroom stall, over the third glass of chardonnay.  But these writers aren't whispering anymore; they're airing their families' dirty laundry on the front porch, for all the world to see.  And judging from the response to Waldman's columns, that's the problem.  How dare she tell everyone about the time her son wore a pink peignoir -- she's going to scar him for life!

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This style seems to be particularly popular with women writers, but there are some men who are mining their family stories for public entertainment.  However, I've never heard anyone castigate David Sedaris for humiliating his parents, or suggest that Dave Barry should write his syndicated column under a pseudonym so that his children's classmates won't mock them.  Perhaps the difference is that women, and especially mothers, are expected to be secret keepers and to save face at all costs.

Waldman addresses this very issue in her first column, in which she wonders about the ethics of writing about her children in her blog and column, and concludes, "I can't promise not to invade their privacy, but I can promise to do it more thoughtfully, and, I hope, to more meaningful an end."  She does exactly that in her second column, using her son's explorations of his gender and sexual identity to talk about tolerance and stereotypes and the changing way we view homosexuality in our culture.  Not surprisingly, that column was just as controversial as the first.

Perhaps the real concern isn't the secrets that are revealed, but the ways in which those revelations are manipulated and used for the writer's purposes.  To tell a story is to control it and shape its meaning.  The author includes and omits details, chooses words that subtly shade interpretation, adds a pat moral to tie it all up into a neat little bow, and then disseminates her version of the event, writing over whatever meaning the other participants might have given it.  By controlling the narrative of her child's life, does the writer invoke the stereotype of the overbearing mother who refuses to allow her children their own lives?  

The boundaries between private life and public spectacle are becoming increasingly blurred with the popularity of blogging.  My husband has been blogging for several years, and he and I have spent a lot of time hashing out what's off limits in our writing.  Adam readily shares everything with his readers, from embarrassing incidents from his childhood to the gory details of his vasectomy, and I have to admit I've winced a time or two at the picture of our lives I see in his blog.

My own blogging dropped off when traffic to my blog increased.  It was one thing to let it all hang out for a few of my closest friends, but when I stopped recognizing all the addresses on the site counter, it began to feel too performative.  And the prospect of Google caching every entry didn't exactly reassure me.  Not only did I not know who was reading now, I didn't know who would be reading in the future.  Will my son's teacher object to me complaining about a book she's assigned?  Would a potential employer shy away from hiring someone with such liberal politics?  And I began to wonder what obligations I might have, not only to my family and friends, but to all the people on the peripheries of my life -- people who may or may not be particularly flattered by the way they're depicted in my posts.  I don't want to view my friends and family as "material" and any events in their lives as fair game.

Keeping all this in mind, I'm warily dipping my toes back in the blogosphere.  If my kids are embarrassed by some of the things I write about them, at least they'll be in good company.  So many moms are blogging now, the New York Times saw fit to explore the phenomenon in a feature article.  And maybe the popularity of blogging will save our kids from teasing and ridicule.  If all their childhoods are documented in excruciating detail on the web, who'll throw the first stone?
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About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.

 

 

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